Varieties of Aesthetic Experience
Literary Modernism and the Dissociation of Belief
Woelfel hinges his argument on the unlikely comparison of two revered modern writers: T. S. Eliot and E. M. Forster. They had vastly different experiences with religion, as Eliot converted to Christianity later in life and Forster became a steadfast nonbeliever over time, but Woelfel contends that their stories offer a compelling model for belief as broken and ambivalent rather than constant. Narratives of faith—its loss or gain—are no longer linear but instead are just as fractured and varied as the modernists themselves. Drawing from Eliot's and Forster's major and minor creative and critical works, Woelfel makes the case for a "dissociation of belief" during the modern era—a separation of emotional and spiritual religious experience from its reduction to forms. He contextualizes belief in the modern era alongside modernist religious studies scholarship and current secularization theory, with particular attention to Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, paving the way for a more nuanced understanding of religious engagement at the time.
In Varieties of Aesthetic Experience, Woelfel considers major literary works—including Eliot's The Waste Land and Forster's A Passage to India—as well as the Cambridge Clark Lectures and previously unstudied personal writings from both authors. The volume revolves around a line from Eliot himself, from a lecture in which he said that he wanted "to see art, and to see it whole." Rather than excluding belief from the conversation, Woelfel contends that modernist art can become a critical liminal space for exploring what it means to believe in a secular age.
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"A compelling and thorough book reexamining the fraught relationship between modernism, secularization, and belief. Woelfel poses hard questions about modern secularity, religion, and the narratives that underwrite them. His answers draw from an illuminating contrast between modernist literary giants, Eliot and Forster, whose paths diverged toward and away from religion sharply. Written with clarity, intelligence, and forthrightness . . . a valuable model of new modernist studies."—Anthony Cuda, author of The Passions of Modernism
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